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The Society of the Cincinnati
Fort Wayne Quest Club
March 24, 2017
THE SOCIETY OF THE CINCINNATI 2
The Society of the Cincinnati
Preface: When this topic was submitted, it had what might have been perceived as
a limiting factor in the title “The Society of the Cincinnati and a military revolt that
did not happen." I am drawing your attention to that because I spend some time
talking about that almost-mutiny and I wanted you to understand why.
At first, I found this topic to be an oddity. What, I wondered, would my Fellow
Questors take away from this speech? Surely, you all know that the lovely city of
Cincinnati lies on the Ohio River and was called the “Paris of America”. You
probably know that it was the first major city founded after the Revolution and,
therefore, is considered the first actual “American” city. Finally, it is very likely
you know that the founding father who named it was Arthur St. Clair, governor of
the Northwest Territory. What you may not know, however, is that Arthur St.
Clair was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati. It was his
recognition of the Society and its namesake that spurred him to bestow that same
name on the new community.
The ideal person to begin our conversation about the Society is, really, its
namesake - Cincinnatus. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus lived during the time of
the Roman Republic, the fifth century BC. He was the role model for the “Citizen
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Soldier”. His story achieved near legendary proportions, a not unexpected result
since many historians believe his story is a legend.
Regardless of fact or legend, here are the highlights of the story.
Cincinnatus was born to a wealthy landowner and member of the ruling class. He
probably had little formal schooling. Rather, his education focused on the two
important facets of Roman life: military and pastoral work. He was regarded “a
noble patrician”, who always responded in “the true type of primeval virtue,
abstinence and patriotism”. (Ihne, 1870, p. 178-179)
Due to a complicated issue related to posting bail for one of his sons,
Cincinnatus was bankrupted. He was left with four acres, his wife Racilla and a
small number of slaves. For the rest of his life, he would, as Michael Hillyard
states, remain “poor and humble yet with…pride intact.” ( 2001, p. 78)
During this time of the Roman Republic, it was the responsibility of the
minority patrician class, of which Cincinnatus was a member, to defend the new
nation. Its small size, commonly thought to be less than 50 square miles, and its
key location made it desirable for conquest by other tribes and villages. (Hillyard,
2001, p. 36-42)
To counter threats and actual war, the Romans created both diplomatic and
military processes based on a two-consul model. This was essentially the executive
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function of the Republic, a function in which the two consuls could directly
contradict the commands of each other.
This two-consul model wasn’t particularly effective, however, when Rome
was presented with dire circumstances. In those cases, one of the consuls would
often be designated a dictator. Dictators, in charge for no more than six months,
enacted martial law. The genius of the Roman system is that once the threat was
resolved, the dictatorship lapsed. (Hillyard, 2001, p. 43-50)
In 461 B.C., the Republic was threatened by the Sabines. To encourage
plebians to fight, they had been appeased with a relaxation of historical aristocratic
claims. Cincinnatus was asked by the Roman Senate to restore order and harmony
to the city. Once he concluded his efforts, the Senate wanted him to violate
tradition and be reelected as a consul. Cincinnatus delivered a speech renouncing
such service and castigating the Senators for even considering that appropriate.
Then he returned to the farm. (Hillyard, 2001, p. 79-86)
Less than two years later, Rome was fighting on two fronts. One army was
destroyed and two consuls were absent. Senate leaders again visited Cincinnatus
urgin him to lead an army granting him dictatorial powers in the process. Michael
Hillyard paints the picture of this exchange, “Emerging from a ditch, Cincinnatus
received them sitting on his spade. Wearing only a tunic due to the intense heat of
that season’s drought, the delegation asked him to respect the pending seriousness
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of the request and put on his toga…then the delegation delivered the call-to arms.
Reluctant to the task, Cincinnatus turned to Racilla and worried aloud, ‘This year’s
crop too will be ruined, then, because of my official duties and we shall all go
dreadfully hungry.’ This picture of Cincinnatus is immortal…the reluctant farmer
goes to save his people… Cincinnatus as the mythical hero.” (2001, p. 91-92)
Following successful repulsion of the foreign armies, Cincinnatus resigned
the commission giving up dictatorial powers. He left the city for his farm and
declined any payment for the services he had rendered the Republic. The Soldier
returned to being the Citizen.
Cincinnatus was the very ideal of character and virtue. He modeled selfless
love of nation versus private success. His actions demonstrated the value of
sacrifice, understanding of the importance of the res publica (the republic, the
things of the public), and, of great importance to today’s subject, subordinating the
military to civilian oversight. In the classical age, these virtues were essential to
the success of the republic.
For the founders of our nation, appreciating and living classical virtues
provided them a “sense of identity…” and “supplied them with the intellectual
tools necessary to face an..uncertain world with some degree of confidence”, says
Professor Carl Richard (1994, p. 12) The American educational system was
brimming with references to classical antiquity. The system was built upon
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curricula established in the Middle Ages and adopted by the English. Within this
system, rhetoric, logic, grammar, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy were
taught. The bases for much of this teaching were theology, philosophy, Latin,
Greek and the historians of those early civilizations. (Richard, 1994, p. 20)
Richard references the “commonplace” books kept by many of the country’s
founders. These were notebooks in which a person copied passages that most
resonated with them. Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Franklin all
deferred to their commonplace books when seeking appropriate classical allusions,
titles and – most often – pseudonyms for their publications.
Even a founder who did not receive a formal education such as George
Washington internalized the character and moral stories of the classics. “Through
the use of Roman analogies,” Richards tells us, “William Fairfax, Washington’s
mentor and surrogate father, impressed upon him ‘that the greatest of all
achievements was, through honorable deeds, to win the applause of one’s
countrymen.” (1994, p. 37) Washington sought to emulate Cincinnatus who won
the admiration of his countrymen first through leading them in times of war and
then by relinquishing any perception of power.
Into this age populated by men steeped in classical influences, then, erupts
the Revolutionary War. At first, the fight is for fair representation in decisions
made by Parliament and King George. As the English consistently treat the
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colonies as cash cows, the fires of liberty are lit. In a small room in Philadelphia,
59 men from different places unite in support of Thomas Jefferson’s glowing
prose. The Declaration of Independence is the gauntlet thrown down. For eight
long years, from 1776-1784, thirteen colonies, along with European allies, wage
battle with Britain.
While sometimes noble sounding, waging war is essentially pitting persons
against each other with a violent result. In the Revolution, these persons were
primarily men. The stories of Revolutionary War rank and file soldiers is
masterfully handled by Robert Mayers in Searching for Yankee Doodle.
It is to the officers to whom we now draw our attention. Specifically, it is to
the bonds of friendship they created in the heat of battle, to the livelihoods they
abandoned to pursue freedom and to the lack of pay and recognition for their
service. The Society of The Cincinnati was born to address these three glaring
“The Society of The Cincinnati,” states Minor Myers Jr., “began as a muti